Sunday, 18 March 2012

Unglamorous Glamour Manor

Jack Benny had a fruitful symbiotic relationship with members of his cast, even the secondary members. They made fun of Benny and made Benny’s show funnier. That, in turn, increased their fame so they were able to parlay it into their own shows, all in 1946. Phil Harris was one. Dennis Day was another. Mel Blanc was another. But a former member of Benny’s cast also launched an attempt at radio stardom that year.

Time proved Benny and Kenny Baker didn’t have much of a symbiotic relationship. Benny carried on for years after Baker walked out on his show, replacing him with someone who had far more talents. Baker’s career began an irreversible decline, slow at first before wearing out his welcome on Fred Allen’s Texaco show. “Glamour Manor” was Baker’s last hurrah on radio and the odds were against him from the start.

“Glamour Manor” debuted in June 1944 with Cliff Arquette in a dual starring role (one being an old woman). The show was tinkered with several times with new casts, vocalists, announcers (one was Robert C. Bruce of Warner Bros. cartoon narrator fame) and even locations. Arquette apparently finally had enough and quit in June 1946. That resulted in another reshuffling. Baker was brought in with a brand-new cast, though some were familiar to listeners as he played on his old connection with Benny. Don Wilson was his announcer and Sam Hearn reprised his role of Schlepperman. In fact, Benny showed up for a guest shot on October 3, 1946. But it simply didn’t work and the show signed off June 27, 1947.

What was wrong with the show? In fairness to Kenny Baker, you can’t blame him. You can blame the writers for coming up with jokes that would be at home in small-time vaudeville and clichéd, one-dimensional characters (and, frankly, this describes most of the sitcoms in the Golden Days). The types had been around radio so long that if someone described the character to you, you could probably guess who played the role. If you read the description of Miss Biddle in the review below, you can’t help but think of Elvia Allman. But dour critic John Crosby of The New York Herald-Tribune didn’t blame the writers, either. This is from December 20, 1946.

Radio Review
Such Young, Young Men
The fascination of naive and extremely literal young men has so thoroughly gripped the people who produce and sponsor radio programs that it deserves, I think, some looking into. I’m not quite sure who started it all but I suspect Jack Benny must shoulder much of the responsibility and it’s a heavy responsibility.
A good many years ago Benny employed on his program a young tenor named Kenny Baker. Besides singing, it was also Baker’s task to be dumb, timid, excessively innocent and a sort of permanent butt of a lot of good-natured jokes. Above all, he provided an excellent foil for the aging, grasping, cocky Benny. Baker was then replaced by a young man named Dennis Day. The advantages of this substitution remain, at least to me, obscure. Both young men (though Baker can’t be so young any more) are tenors with identical qualities. Both react precisely alike to the same stimuli. Both have the same dewy personality. In fact, if any one can distinguish between the two, he has a sharper ear than mine.
Although he still appears on the Benny program, Day has a new program of his own called “A Day in the Life of Dennis Day,” (NBC, 6:30 p.m. Thursday). Baker has HIS own program “Glamour Manor,” which appears, God save the mark, five times a week (ABC, 9 a.m. Mondays through Fridays). This makes a total of seven programs a week of fresh young male innocence or enough to keep Hollywood gainfully employed for a couple of years.
If it hadn’t been going on so long, I’d call it a trend. The way things are, you might call it a sort of fast-frozen belief in radio circles that Baker and Day epitomize young American manhood. On the basis of five years in the Army, I find this belief difficult to share. The young men I met were considerably more hep than either Baker or Day and I met only one young man who fainted dead away when a pretty girl spoke to him. This custom made him rather more of a curiosity than a typical American male.
All the above is a rather circuitous introduction to “Glamour Manor,” one of the heaviest daytime shows on the air. In addition to Baker’s tenor voice and girlish innocence, the program boasts Harry Lubin’s orchestra, a competent cast, and Don Wilson, an announcer who has provoked more, though not necessarily better, jokes about fat men than Falstaff. About one-third of the program is devoted to Baker’s singing in his pleasant tenor to Lubin’s music.
The rest of the proceedings revolve around the goings-on at “Glamour Manor,” a hotel which Baker runs and in which his girl-friend, Barbara, is employed.
Barbara is the Great American Girl Friend as opposed to, let us say, the Great American Kid Sister, who is Judy Foster, somebody else entirely. In addition to these two, there is a Jewish dialect comedian named Schlepperman and a Miss Biddle, one of those elderly snobbish ladies who chases men and never catches them and who says at one point: “I’d like to have a neck like a giraffe and a head like Charles Boyer. I’ve always wanted to have a long neck with Charles Boyer.”
To give you the smallest possible example of the proceedings at “Glamour Manor,” the other day an old college friend of Kenny’s named Russel Green, a conceited, handsome mug, showed up at the hotel and threw everyone into an uproar by making a pass at Barbara. Every thing worked out all right when this character came down with lead poisoning from one of Miss Biddle’s pies.
More important than the plot in these programs is Baker’s character. To give you some idea just how arrested is Baker’s development, I offer the following samples of his dialogue. At one point he says to Barbara: “Look, there’s a mouse!” Then KB runs. At another point when Schlepperman tries to reason with him as he picks up a gun and looks desperate. Baker says: “Don’t worry; there isn't any water in it.” Now, just one more: “Gee, I didn’t know he’d tell his father I broke his yo-yo.”
The other jokes are almost uniformly awful but I’m afraid most of them will have to be forgiven. After all, this is a half-hour show, five days a week. The jokesmiths must be suffering from a severe case of combat fatigue. I have only one suitable for exhibit.
“I became a singer,” says Kenny.
“I didn’t know that. I thought you were a tenor.”
Copyright 1946, for The Tribune


  1. Five days a week!? ABC must really have been banking on some Benny connection washover to make the series go, since even by the Golden Age standards of 39 shows a year, you're going to blow through that total in just eight weeks, even if you had a Benny-style writing staff and cast.

    The naive/dumb supporting character remains a staple of situation comedies, but they've never fared well when some network official gets the idea to give them their own series -- they're better as a comedy relief to the main character than as the lead, in part because you're now asking the audience to identify with the rube/idiot, and the dumb jokes become the centerpiece of the show (it's why "Cheers" and NBC could spin off Frazier Crane into his own series, but "Friends" couldn't spin Joey Tribianni off in the same way into his own long-running series -- a "Woody" spinoff from "Cheers" would have met the same fate).

  2. Wow, John Crosby sure comes off as a bitter hermit in this article, even moreso than his other articles. I find myself only skimming his articles to shield myself from his vitriol. Critics, I tells ya!

  3. John Crosby pretty much hated everything he heard on Radio. Then he turned his hatred to TV, in circa 1948-49. Unfortunately apparently his criticisms weren't bitter or acid enough to kill TV. I've heard both the Baker versions the Arquette program and the humor was exactly the same. You imagine the writer burn out? You have to have at least 1 dozen writers for that show just to keep the humor fresh? Three differing writers a day. That way only one team per each daily program. That figures out to 5 shows a month per each team of three writers. So 12 writers could work out. I wonder who dictated a five show a week schedule??